The Healing Magic of Baseball

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She was a firestorm, an utterly fearless combination of Bette Davis’s stubbornness and Rosie the Riveter’s determination. She was like a portrait that compels the viewer to study it deeply for the lines left by the brush, it’s bold strokes of light and dark.

Until she wasn’t.

By the time my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in early 2002 at age sixty-six, her brain was already shrinking. Beta-amyloid peptide (BAP) protein plaques had already formed, destroying more and more neurons in her brain. The nerve cells responsible for sending messages throughout her nervous system tangled with tau proteins. Small clumps of BAP blocked the essential cell-to-cell signals at the synapses, and her limbs and organs were already forgetting how to function. Her memory and her body were beginning to betray her.

At first, she tried the drugs that her doctors prescribed. We pinned our hopes on the Aricept that was purported to slow cognitive decline, but we’d arrived too late at those first steps. The available drugs were designed for patients who were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but as we’d come to realize much later, in the harsh glare of hindsight, she’d already been symptomatic for more than fifteen years. She was mid-stage, and treating her symptoms became akin to attempting to stop a runaway train with a toothpick.

As my mother suffered the loss of her memories, her dignity, and her control over her body, my siblings and I felt that pain first in ripples, then in tidal waves. In The Things They Carried, of soldiers at war Tim O’Brien said, “They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it. They carried gravity.” And here we were, my siblings and I manning the front lines of our own personal wars, the one to save Mom and Dad, the ones to keep our business alive and our families relatively intact. Our arms were full of our own personal atmospheres, and Mom’s illness was heavy on our backs, our legs cemented in grief and discontent. At times the only way to cope was to delve back into memory, to a time when the world seemed to shine with possibility.

*

My parents developed and operated small businesses with an intensity that would have made an evangelical preacher envious. During my childhood they owned a kitchen and bathroom remodeling business, a retail fireplace store, a real estate franchise, a popcorn company, an online office supply store, an enterprise in which my mom sold copper cookware at home parties, an underground bookie operation, and the biggest adventure of them all, The Lenox Motel in the idyllic Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

“She was reading that goddamn Wall Street Journal at work,” Dad explained during a conversation in 2012. I’d been on a visit to Florida and my father, who rarely divulged anything about my mother, started talking and couldn’t stop. “She always used to read it at lunch and she seen this motel one day. She come home and said, ‘We’re buying a motel.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ because there was never any sense in arguing with your mother when she got something in her head. Anyway, let it be known that this was on a Friday, and on Saturday morning we were on our way to the Berkshires and bought the motel.”

Just like that.

They knew the Berkshires well. We’d taken several trips to the Berkshires from our home in gritty Stratford, Connecticut, after Dad purchased a cottage by a lake in Becket, about an hour from Lenox. The whole cottage, twelve feet square, was a single room: a set of bunk beds built into one wall with a yellowed shower curtain hanging in front of them for privacy, a lumpy sleeper sofa abandoned in front of the only window, a dilapidated stove and refrigerator in one corner, and a toilet and stand-up shower in another. The space at the cottage might have been diminutive and primitive in nature, but the weekends there were a warm and joyful departure from a family life filled with many, many parental work hours, and very little family time at all.

baseball1The cottage existed in a world of hot August afternoons, blueberry pancakes, fireflies caught in a jar, and daydreams. Summer mornings spent picking blueberries from the wild bushes on the property and afternoons building sandcastles on the shore of Big Robin Lake imbued the Berkshires with a dreamy haze. The cottage was a place where our family could simply “be”; this was where Mom and Dad smiled instead of frowned, and where we ate blueberry cobbler, skipped stones across the lake, and stayed up late playing gin rummy on the rickety card table in the middle of the room.

On the day after Christmas 1975, when I was eight, in the living room of our house in Stratford, my thirteen-year-old sister Suzanne and I sat on the beige shag carpet, and my parents were seated on the orange plaid couch opposite us. My mother’s posture looked unnerving—the kind of straight back that indicated something was amiss.

“We have some great news,” Mom said. “We’ve found a way for us to spend more time together! Daddy and I are tired of being away from you two so much so we’re going to make a big change and we’re all going to be in it together, okay?”

Suzanne and I glanced at each other, suspicious about the forced smile on Mom’s face. Dad was still as stone next to her, but I saw the glimmer of small beads of sweat starting to show above his brow.

“Daddy and I bought a beautiful motel,” my mother continued, “and we’re going to live in it, and run it, as a family. We’ll be together all the time! Won’t that be great?”

Immediately defensive, Suzanne reacted: “What about our house? Do we have to live there? Can’t you just take care of it and we can still live in our house?”

“No,” Dad responded. “The motel isn’t here; it’s in Massachusetts.”

As it would be for much of our childhood, the usual diametrically opposed dynamic of my sister and I was as follows: I cried, she yelled.

“Massachusetts?” Suzanne screamed. “I’m not moving to Massachusetts, and you can’t make me! I’ll run away from home!”

Through my tears I watched the red move up my father’s neck and reach the veins that throbbed in his temple. When he rose forward off his seat Mom pulled him back down beside her with one firm hand.

“Frank! Sit down!” she said. “Girls, I know this is a lot to take in at once, but it’s really going to be wonderful. We’re going to love it there; I know we will! It’s in the Berkshires and not far from the cottage, so we’ll get to go there more often. Both of you have such a great time up there! Let’s just give this a chance, okay?”

Sputtering and stammering, I asked, “Do they have schools there? Will Santa know where we live?”

“Lenox is a small town,” my mother explained, “but it’s got all the same things that we have here. Schools and hospitals and post offices. And yes, we’ll make sure to tell Santa where we’re moving.”

Suzanne, hormonal, and pissed off, shouted at me, “Are you stupid or something? Who cares about school when my life is over? What am I going to do all summer? I won’t know anybody there!”

My parents glanced at each other. They both took a deep, deep breath.

“By summer, you’ll both have plenty of friends,” Dad blurted. “We move to Lenox in eight days.”

*

On the day we moved to Lenox, a cold, snowy afternoon on the third of January, 1976, our new environment looked neither like the Becket of my memory nor the Lenox of my daydreams. Instead, the motel was in a small commercial district lined with motels, restaurants, car dealers, and a strip mall. The harsh winter temperatures made the days of the cottage feel as if they couldn’t have existed in the same country. And yet, here we were, embarking on this new adventure as a family.

The motel’s address was in Lenox but Room #1 meandered over the town line into Pittsfield, the so-called neighboring metropolis of about 51,000 people, and the property straddled the town line much like Suzanne and I moved from our old life into our new one: we’d arrived in our future, but tried like hell to keep one defiant foot planted in our past.

The adjustments were many, and the learning curve for my parents, great. Of all of the businesses that Mom and Dad had owned over the years, none had prepared them for running a motel, so we learned it all together at approximately the rate of being shot out of a cannon. Within the first few weeks we learned how to answer and direct calls on a circa 1915 Western Electric switchboard, the kind with black and red cords that connected incoming to outgoing calls, the Laugh-In, Lily Tomlin, “one-ringy-dingy” variety. Making wake up calls, checking in guests, making change, and delivering towels and ice were all part of my new responsibilities.

Mom, in her usual fashion, was excited about everything. Every new challenge presented an opportunity to tackle something and master it, an aspect of her personality I’ve envied all my life. She chose new bedspreads, organized the motel laundry room to a level of efficiency that bordered on compulsive, created a new bookkeeping system, and started attending local Chamber of Commerce meetings to promote the family business.

Dad put his carpentry and remodeling skills to work that first winter at the motel. He ripped out old carpeting, picked out new paintings for the walls, shored up rickety furniture, and painted the exterior trim. By the time summer came around, baskets of red gardenias hung from the rafters on the porch, Dad had built a deck around our newly installed above-ground pool, and we got into a rhythm that was at once measured and chaotic. We were ready for twenty-eight guests we would never forget.

*

On a warm day in May of 1976, they rolled into The Lenox Motel’s gravel driveway on an old Greyhound bus: twenty-eight young men stretched and yawned, spit and scratched as they unfolded themselves from their seats and filed down the bus steps toward the front door of our motel.

Just five months into our first year as the new owners of the Lenox Motel, we welcomed The Berkshire Brewers, the Atlantic League’s AA baseball farm team into our family folklore. It was almost twenty-five years before the words “Alzheimer’s Disease” and “Mom” would intersect. Twenty-nine years before we would say goodbye to the woman who loved us and these boys from the bus. Thirty before my husband would come home from work to where we lived in Denver, a few days before my thirty-ninth birthday, August 2006, and tell me he’d arranged a surprise getaway for the two of us.

*

The grief of losing my mother eight months prior is still a raw and bloody wound, and I’ve been dreading this first of many birthdays without her singsong voice on the other end of the phone.

When we arrive at The Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver, a bouquet of my favorite stargazer lilies sits on the small table by the window. The scent of them is so strong that I know they’re there even before we open the door to our room. Heavy federal blue and gold brocade fabric covers the large antique bed and hangs from brass curtain rods in front of the window. I lie down on the bed and feel the softness of it encircle my body like a womb.

With his patented mix of impish excitement and tenderness, Dave looks at me with the light green eyes that made me fall in love with him in the first place and hands me an envelope that he says contains the rest of my birthday surprise: two tickets for the Colorado Rockies game that afternoon—seats on the first level right next to the Rockies dugout—close enough to smell the sweat and hear the swearing. Somehow he seems to know just what I need, and the smell of the ballpark in my nose is a great place to start. Ever since that first summer in the Berkshires, baseball has taken up residence in my blood, and it never fails to soothe what feels broken in me. I need to shield my eyes with my palm as the sun sets over left field. I need a foot-long hot dog dripping with ketchup and mustard, and a watered-down soda in an oversized souvenir cup. I need to see the green grass of the outfield stretch out before me, and to marvel in the contrast between the color of the field and the red clay of the track around it. I need the cracks of the bats, the thump of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, and the healing magic of baseball.

baseball2

“Baseball,” I say. “Baseball on my birthday. This is the perfect present, babe. Thank you so much.”

“Well, there’s more going on here than the Rockies game,” Dave says. “Someone you know was named the hitting coach for the team a couple of months ago, and I thought you might like to try to see him.”

“Someone I know is a coach for the Rockies?”

“Duane Espy,” he says with a grin that stretches almost as wide as his face.

*

Second baseman Duane Espy had been drafted to the Brewers farm team from his California high school in 1970, and by the time the club arrived on our doorstep that summer of 1976, he held sway as the team veteran. With his seniority came privilege, and he was the only player allowed to travel with a spouse. And what a couple they made—Duane’s square jaw and dark wavy hair created the perfect contrast to his wife Janet’s beautiful long blonde tresses and Miss America figure. They arrived in a beat up VW Bug the day after the rest of the team only to find out that they’d have to share a double room with another guy. Mom, a romantic to her core, stepped in with an offer.

“You know,” she said, leaning over the lower half of the Dutch door that connected the tiny motel lobby to our office, “we have a little cottage in Becket that you and your wife are welcome to use. It’s about an hour from here and it’s nothing fancy, but it’s quiet, has plenty of privacy for a newlywed couple, and it’s yours if you’d like it.”

From behind my mother I watched an excited look pass between Duane and his wife, and they nodded in agreement. “We’d love that; thank you so much.”

“I’ll get you the keys and draw you a map,” my mother continued. “Just make sure you come down and see us every once in a while.”

And they did. They showed up at the motel hours before the bus was to leave for home games at Wahconah, and they stayed well into the evening celebrating after a win or easing the collective conscience of the rookies after a loss. Duane carried the responsibility of his seniority with ease, and the younger players often looked to him for guidance. Life on the road in AA ball meant small paychecks, dusty busses, cold coffee, and an abundance of loneliness, and no matter the situation they encountered, the guys knew that if they needed someone to understand, they could go to Espy.

From the second they stepped off the bus, Mom adopted the whole team as “her boys.” She cooked for them, squeezed them into our home for Sunday dinners, and acted as amateur psychologist when homesickness had them in its clutches, or when an argument with their wives or girlfriends made them question why they were there. On top of it all, she never missed a home game.

That summer was a mild one in the Berkshires; the average temperature hovered around eighty degrees and the normally humid air stayed dry. The dry, hard baseball flew far into the outfield of Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park, sometimes to our Brewers’s advantage, sometimes to their detriment. Bats cracked and splintered at home plate when batters connected with the ball in the weak spot near their hands, and the 3,500 spectator seats in the park were permanently covered with a layer of the fine red sand that had been blown up off of the field.

In that favorite summer of my memory, Mom is perched on the edge of the rickety folding chair in box seats that the team manager reserved for us. I’m beside her, my eight-year-old legs dangling above the painted plywood floor of the box. With her elbows on her knees and hands cupping the sides of her mouth, she hollers, “C’mon boys! Mama’s watching!” as soon as one of “her boys” makes his way to the plate. She takes a deep breath with every practice swing of the wooden bat, and when the batter grinds the tips of his shoes in the batter’s box, tilts his head down, and bounces at his knees and hips, she inhales and holds her breath until the pitcher releases a side-armed curve toward home plate. She stands up in her seat and cheers when the ump calls a ball and brushes off the strikes with calls of “That’s right! You wait for your pitch!”

Long after the balls and bats had been stowed away and uniforms hung back on their hooks, I remember how Janet and Mom bonded over coffee and husbands back at the motel after a game. They swapped the kind of stories that only wives can tell, and Mom led the way with tales of the early days with my father. Feeling like a proper grown up with my heavily sugared coffee with milk, I watched their exchanges from my place in the kitchen dining nook while they laughed over Mom’s recounting of how she finally got her terrified-of-commitment-bachelor to settle down and start a family, and Janet talked about their time on the road and the uncertainty and frustration of Duane’s six years at the minor league level. These two women, the blonde newlywed in her Brewers ball cap, dungarees, and tee shirt, and the forty-year-old motel owner with her frosted hair pushed back away from her face with her glasses (and who was still wearing bell-bottomed pants and flowing sixties tops) sat for hours around the table in our kitchen with steaming mugs of coffee in front of them, undaunted by the clamor of male voices in the periphery. When I think of Mom now, I see her as she was then: a smiling, laughing caricature of her best self.

I remember how the team floated in and out of our living room and kitchen like they were part of the family during that summer, and although we didn’t know it then, we had three future World Series players in our midst. Suzanne taught Jim Gantner how to play the organ, Greg Erardi tried to get Mom to release her secret spaghetti gravy recipe to him (with no success), and Lary Sorenson played fetch with our miniature German Schnauzer, Candy. The guys sat out on the front porch of the motel and smoked cigars with my dad, let Mom ice down their bruised elbows and aching shoulders, and ran the bases of Wahconah Park at sixty-eight home games.

And I remember how, on that sixty-eighth afternoon the sun set in our eyes. Mom wore her Jackie O sunglasses, Dad’s cigar hung out of the side of his mouth, and Suzanne and I donned the Brewer’s caps given to us by the team manager, John Felske. We stuffed ourselves with hot dogs and soft pretzels dripping with mustard and drank enough soda to float ourselves across the outfield. And Mom called them by name each and every time they approached the plate, snagged a fly ball, or slid into third. And by the end, transfused with her energy and confidence, they celebrated a narrow victory over the Quebec Metros. As though she’d willed it to happen, we watched them round the bases one last time as a team, lift their hats in the air, and end the only season that the Brewers farm team would ever play in the Berkshires.

*

Now, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed in our room with the tickets in my hands and I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have married someone who knows me so well. Though I doubt Duane will remember some scrawny kid from the Berkshires from thirty years ago, I can’t help but smile.

baseball3An hour before the game, Dave and I walk into Coors Field. It’s a place I’ve been to many times since the park opened in 1994, but today I see it differently. I close my eyes and I’m back in Wahconah, sitting again in the metal folding chairs and asking Mom for soda money. I wonder to myself how the same memory could possible evoke so much simultaneous joy and pain. The push and pull of one memory against the next takes my breath away. Flashes of paired memories come racing back: Mom laughing at Wahconah when one of the guys ran by our seats and waved at her in recognition; her looking at me during a car ride twenty-eight years later and telling me that I’m pretty, followed by a crushing offhand comment: “Your mother must be so proud.”

We find our seats and Dave approaches the dugout to ask the batboy to find Duane and let him know he has a visitor. I can’t hear his words, but I see the bead of sweat trickle from the base of his skull down in between his shoulder blades. He wants so badly to orchestrate this reunion.

When Duane bounds up the steps of the dugout a few minutes later, the past thirty years fall away. His dark hair has turned the color of polished nickel, and his jaw and waistline have rounded since the last time I saw him, but the familiar glint of his blue eyes remains unchanged. He holds out his hand to me and I take it in my own, feeling the warmth of it from a time in my memory.

“Mr. Espy,” I begin, barely able to keep my breath. “You might not remember me, but you played for the 1976 Berkshire Brewers, and that summer you and your wife stayed in a little cottage by a lake in Becket…”

“Oh my God, you’re the little one!” he says as his eyes widen.

I laugh and nod, introduce my husband, and tell him how delighted I am to see him again.

“Your parents were so terrific to give us your cottage,” he says. “I’ll never forget that. We had the best time there that summer. How are they? Your parents, I mean.”

“Dad is doing okay,” I say. “He lives in Florida now. We moved there in 1980 and he really loves it.” I take a deep breath, lower my head and continue. “But we lost Mom on New Year’s Day this year to Alzheimer’s.”

For a moment, everything goes still. The smile fades from his face as he processes my words.

“Oh, God, no,” he says. “Your Mom? Alzheimer’s? I can’t even imagine. She was so… so… sharp, so full of life. Young, too, right?”

“She’d just turned seventy when she died,” I say. “A lot of years have gone by since The Lenox Motel.”

“Hard to believe,” he says. His eyes turn glassy and he shakes his head to collect himself before he continues. “I’m so sorry to hear that. What a damn shame.”

To have this one particular man remember her, as I do in some of my most treasured memories, feels like everything.

“Thank you so much,” I say. “I’m so glad you remember her. She would have loved that.”

“How could I forget? “ he says as he reaches out and places his big hand on my arm. “Your mother was one of a kind.”

I tell him how I gave a eulogy at her funeral in January, how I actually talked about the team. I tell him how she followed all of them as best she could over the years, how she watched Duane’s career as a manager and always said what a natural fit that was. I tell him how she cried when she heard that outfielders Dan Thomas committed suicide in Florida, and Ray-Ray Hall blew out his shoulder and would never play the game again. And when she sat in front of the television and watched Jim Gantner being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, how she said that thing she used to say at all of their games at Wahconah Park.

In the warm sunshine of Coors Field in Denver, the corners of Duane Espy’s mouth turn up and reveal the gap-toothed smile that I remember.

Mama’s watching,” he says.

***

Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.


Gina Bednarz earned her BA in English at MSU Denver, and her MFA in creative nonfiction at Lesley University. Her work has appeared in Metrosphere Magazine, Miami Living, and Yahoo! Shine, and she’s been selected as writer-in-residence at Elsewhere Studios and Starry Night Residencies. Currently a tutor and freelance writer, she’s at work on a novel and the completion of the memoir from which this piece was excerpted. She can be contacted at [email protected] More from this author →